Mention Bullitt to anyone who knows even just a little about movies, and I bet within 10 seconds the words "car chase" will be uttered. ¬†And indeed,¬†the car chase in this quintessentially 1968 film--vaulting through the (unusually quiet) streets of San Francisco and out into the northern California hills--is in some ways the granddaddy of them all. ¬†Actually, the chase-- police detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in a now-iconic green "fastback" Mustang pursuing a couple of shotgun-shooting bad guys in a Dodge Charger-- was inspired by a chase in Robbery, the previous film directed by Bullitt's director, Peter Yates. ¬†(This fact comes from Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies in his intro to Bullitt a few nights ago.)
The Bullitt car chase is, however, anything but derivative or tame. ¬†Anyone who saw this movie when it first came out remembers being blown away by the stomach-churning drops and turns of the chase, which starts about an hour in and goes on for nearly 10 minutes. ¬†There is not a word of dialogue, and the jazz score is only there at the beginning--otherwise, it's all screeching tires and revving motors. ¬† Amazingly,¬†even on television¬†the chase still works on a gut-punch level.
More than just a car chase.
But Bullitt is a lot more than just a car chase, classic though it is. ¬†Saturday Review in its year-end 1968 issue, put Steve McQueen at dead center of its cover-story photo montage of "The NOW Movie" (see earlier post in Covering 1968). ¬†It's not exactly an "art film"--it's still essentially a police procedural--but something about its affect and daring makes it¬†feel different, edgy, smart. (Yates is British, after all, part of England's astoundingly inventive 1960s film scene). ¬†Take the credit sequence--so dark it's nearly black-and-white, with some groovy graphics matched by some cool jazz--lots of horns and brushed cymbals--by Lalo Schifrin. Shattering glass, gunplay and screaming car action start right away. ¬† The camera does a lot of tracking, and not just of moving vehicles; everything seems to be in motion, jittery. ¬†There's an extended, Hitchcockian chase -- on foot-- across an airport runway filled with taxiing jets. An emergency room surgeon is African American. Frank Bullitt has that cool disregard for the rules that came to be a standard trope of movie cops. As he says to the unctuous, corrupt politican played by Robert Vaughan,¬†in what became the movie's most-quoted lines: ¬†"You believe what you want. You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine." ¬† The movie ends abruptly, wordlessly, ambiguously.
The look of 1968
Of course, one of the pleasures of movies set in the here-and-now of 1968 is being able reimagine that world: ¬†If a gangster needs to make a call, he asks the cabbie to pull over at a pay phone. ¬†Everyone in the boarding line at a very crowded airport is dressed up--men in suits and ties, women in dresses, hats, and stockings. "High-tech" police equipment--shown in close detail--is a copy-transmitting machine that's hooked up to a phone receiver. ¬†There's still an Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco--it was torn down in 1991--and there are still airlines named PanAm and TWA. ¬†Bullitt heats up his instant coffee with a little immersion heating coil. ¬† ER nurses wear crisp little hats. ¬†(Oddly, however, there's little or no drinking or cigarette smoking--it's not Mad Men.)
Violence as a way of life
But it's not just the amusing period details that tell us this is 1968: ¬†There is a lot of violence in Bullitt--not street violence, or racial violence--but it's still intensely public. ¬†There's always a crowd witnessing the violence or the victims, and the director pans across the craning necks, the milling around, the murmuring. ¬† And late in the movie, after Bullitt's girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) sees Bullittt dealing with a gruesome murder scene, she confronts him with some harsh words, and suddenly Bullitt starts to seem like less like the maverick anti-hero and something closer to the Everyman of 1968: ¬†"With you, living with violence is a way of life, living with violence and death. ¬†How can you be part of it, without becoming more and more callous? ¬†What will happen to us in time?" ¬†Bullitt's answer: ¬†"Time starts now."